Editor’s Note: Over the past five seasons, Notre Dame is 32-31, has tied the school record for most consecutive seasons with at least five losses (five) and is one short of tying the school record of six straight seasons not finishing in the top 25.
Jesse Harper (left) is shown in this 1931 photo with Irish head coach Hunk Anderson.
Can the Irish get out of their funk in 2012 and break the spell? At least 10 other Notre Dame teams did. Our criteria include, 1) how long has the program been slumping? 2) how much did it struggle a year earlier? And 3) how dramatic was the turnaround season? At No. 4 is 1957.
Officially, Notre Dame football played its first game in 1887. It recorded its first victory in 1888 (Harvard Prep), saw its first All-American named in 1903 (Louis “Red” Salmon) and recorded its first major upset in 1909 — 11-3 at Michigan, the school that introduced it to the sport.
However, Notre Dame football, as we know it today, didn’t truly commence until 1913.
There was nothing wrong with the record of 113-29-13 from 1887 through 1912, with back-to-back unbeaten seasons of 6-0-2 (1911) and 7-0 (1912). The problem was the schedule, which was replete with provincial schools such as Olivet, Butchel (Akron), Rose Poly, Ohio Northern, St. Viator, Wabash, Adrian and Morris Harvey.
The Western Conference, later known as the Big Nine and then the Big Ten, snubbed the small Catholic school from membership in 1908, and blackballed it from future encounters — especially after the stunning 11-3 victory at Michigan in 1909. It wouldn’t be until 1917, against Wisconsin, that a team from the Big 10 would again be on Notre Dame’s schedule.
Michigan Agricultural College, later known as Michigan State, did play Notre Dame in 1910 and coasted to a 17-0 victory, the lone loss by Notre Dame in the four seasons from 1909-12. However, MAC would not become a member of the Big 10 until the early 1950s.
The football program was at a crossroads. According to Murray Sperber’s 1993 book “Shake Down the Thunder,” Notre Dame football had lost $463 in revenue in 1912 because of its small-time operation. Was it worth it?
Wrote Sperber: “The students and the increasing number of alumni, as well as priests within the C.S.C. community, strongly opposed shrinking the football program.”
In December 1912, Notre Dame president Rev. John W. Cavanaugh opted to think big and hired Wabash’s Jesse Harper as the program’s first full-time coach and athletics director. Harper’s immediate priority was to upgrade the schedule.
Also the baseball coach, Harper and his staff scheduled tours to the East Coast that generated almost $1,000 in profit. That prompted Notre Dame to do the same in football, even if by happenstance.
When powerful Yale broke off its series with Army in 1913, Harper wrote to the United States Military Academy to fill the Nov. 1 slot. Harold Loomis, the Army football manager offered Harper $600, but Harper replied he needed $1,000 to cover expenses for the trip. Loomis reluctantly acquiesced — and the trip cost $917 despite the 18 players taking only 14 football shoes and subsisting during a 24-hour train ride (875 miles) on sandwiches made in the campus dining hall.
Six days later, another trip out East would be made for a Nov. 7 game at Penn State (520 miles). Then it had to travel to St. Louis on Nov. 22 for a game against Christian Brothers (400 miles) and then five days later travel to Austin, Texas (840 miles) for a Thanksgiving Day clash on Nov. 22 against the undefeated Longhorns.
Notre Dame had never traveled farther than the 415 miles to Pittsburgh. Now it was supposed to travel by railroad for more than 5,000 miles within a span of four weeks?
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!
Remarkably, Notre Dame finished 7-0 while achieving a grand slam in the month of November with those stunning road sweeps of Army (35-13), Penn State (14-7), the Nittany Lions’ first loss on its home turf in 19 years, rallying from a 7-0 halftime deficit to defeat Christian Brothers, 20-7, and then snapping Texas’ 12-game winning streak with an impressive 29-7 triumph.
The victory at Army (its lone setback in 18 games through 1914), in particular, stunned the influential Eastern press when Notre Dame unveiled its lethal passing attack that saw Gus Dorais complete 14 of his 17 attempts for 243 yards, with scoring tosses to Knute Rockne and Joe Pliska.
Wrote the New York Times: “The Army players were hopelessly confused and chagrined before Notre Dame’s great playing, and [Army’s] style of old-fashioned, close line-smashing was no match for the spectacular and highly perfected attack of the Indiana collegians.”
No letdown occurred despite the hard fought contests in Penn State and St. Louis, and the long trip to Austin.
Wrote Sperber: “Notre Dame students were ecstatic with the team’s success, and the Scholastic (the student magazine) printed page after page of laudatory comments by Midwestern and eastern papers on the Catholic school’s football prowess … a collective ego boost. Whatever inferiority feeling Notre Dame experienced because of the ostracism of the Big Nine were assuaged by the long commentaries in the most important journals in the country. The Midwestern universities might consider the Catholic school invisible, but the national media validated Notre Dame’s existence.”
Next year will be the 100th anniversary of that watershed 1913 campaign made possible by Harper’s vision. His resourcefulness and the school’s greater commitment to athletics set the table for successor Rockne in 1918.
Notre Dame had been competitive prior to 1913, but this was the season that set the path for future glory as an independent. The arduous November trail saw the program spend more than a week in railroad cars during its 5,000 miles of travel — and winning all four games in the process.
Notre Dame later would become famous for its travel, to the points where sportswriters referred to Rockne’s teams of the 1920s “The Ramblers.” But the tradition began in 1913.